Category Archives: Now Showing

VACATION

Producer:  David Dobkin and Chris Bender
Director:  Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley
Writer:  Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley
Stars:  Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Charliec Day, Catherine Missal, Ron Livingston and Norman Reedus
Studio:  Warner Bros. Pictures

F

It isn’t only the kids who will be asking “Are we there yet?” while watching this sleazy, gruesomely unfunny remake of Harold Ramis’ cherished 1983 comedy, which really marked the beginning of John Hughes’ rise as the great family-comedy writer-director of the eighties. The three sequels to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”—two of which were penned by Hughes, presumably on an off day—were nothing to write home about, but this reboot (from the team of Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, making their writing-directing debut after scripting “Horrible Bosses” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”) is truly a disgrace to its source. Admittedly Hughes’s scripts for the series weren’t exactly models of sophisticated wit—these were slapstick farces, after all—but they had an underlying good-natured quality that Ramis, most notably, brought to the fore. Goldstein and Daley emphasize vulgarity and mean-spiritedness instead, trying only sporadically for the heart the first film had even when it was anarchic. “Vacation” is so scummy that one wonders whether Jamie Gross wasn’t hired as editor because of his surname.

After a credits sequence that already demonstrates the movie’s approach—snapshots of people on vacation humiliating themselves or others, with plenty of raunchiness on display—Goldstein and Daley set their story in the next generation of Griswolds. Rusty, the son of Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) originally played by Anthony Michael Hall and later by Jason Lively, Ethan Embry and Johnny Galecki, is now a pilot on a Chicago-based commuter airline and married to Debbie (Christina Applegate). They’re parents to two sons, sensitive teen James (Skyler Gisondo) and foul-mouthed, nasty tyke Kevin (Steele Stebbins). Rusty decides that they need an extended family outing to bond, so he rents an Albanian minivan called the Tartan Prancer for them all to travel to California’s Walley World, just as he and sister Audrey did years ago with their parents, with disastrous results. Along the way they’ll stop in Texas to visit Audrey (Leslie Mann), now wed to Dallas TV weatherman Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth), before winding up at a San Francisco bed-and-breakfast run by Clark and Ellen.

Even in the prologue in Chicago, the screenplay’s tastelessness is on full display in a sequence in which exits the cockpit during a flight, leaving the plane in the control of a senile co-pilot before repairing to the cabin to chat with a clean-cut family, only to stumble into uncomfortable positions with them as the aircraft lurches about. And once the vacation actually begins, all the legs of the journey and stops along the way prove catastrophic. They feature such lovely moments as the clan literally swimming in a pool of excrement, Debbie getting wasted and throwing up during a visit to her old sorority in Memphis, repeated run-ins with an apparently “Duel”-like tractor-trailer driver, and Rusty’s literally exploding a cow on the Crandall ranch, winding up drenched in blood and gore. None of these episodes exhibit the exquisite comedy of frustration—and undercurrent of imminent emotional explosion—that Hughes and Chase brought to Clark’s misadventures; they’re all simply coarse for the sake of being coarse.

And the characterizations are just mystifying. Rusty, who as Hall played him was a sharp kid, watching his father’s klutziness with a mixture of amusement and concern, has grown into nothing more than a garrulous moron, played by Helms as a simple buffoon whose stupidity is matched only by his obliviousness. Even worse is little Kevin, played by the smiling Stebbins as a mini-psycho-in-the-making who, among other things, enjoys putting a plastic bag over his brother’s head to see how long he can survive. (It’s a relief when James finally turns the tables and puts the pint-sized brat in his place.) It’s not the actors’ fault how these characters come across; it’s that of the writers, who also liberally sprinkle the dialogue with obscenities to turn what’s supposed to be a family comedy into a definitely R-rated farce that has more in common with “We’re the Millers” than its purported namesake.

As Debbie Applegate has to endure that sorority sequence, and Gisondo has to mug in exasperation and embarrassment far too often as poor, horny James, but the nadir of the picture, in terms of performances, certainly comes in the visit to the Crandall place. Set aside the fact that the location is specified as Plano, Texas—a highly-developed Dallas suburb that bears absolutely no resemblance to the location that production designer Barry Robison has come up with; that’s just typical ignorance. The more grievous problem is Hemsworth’s turn as the grotesquely oversexed Stone, whose drawl would automatically exclude him from a job at any station within a hundred miles of DFW. Sure, “Blackhat” was a disaster, but has it reduced his career to this? Mann and D’Angelo are wasted in their brief onscreen moments, and as for Chase, what one most notices is how enormous he’s become. Nobody else much matters, though Charlie Day, Ron Livingston and Norman Reedus are all stuck with doomed cameos. Apart from that Plano sequence, the tech credits are all unremarkable.

The last sound you hear before the closing credits of “Vacation” is that of a toilet flushing. That’s a fitting end to this unremittingly crude, frequently repulsive sequel to a fondly-remembered cable perennial.

A LEGO BRICKUMENTARY

Producer:  Brendan Kieman, Justin Moore-Lewy and Chris Brown
Director:  Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson
Writer: Daniel Junge, Davis Coome and Kief Davidson
Stars: Jason Bateman
Studio:  Radius-TWC

B-

This love letter to the toy that spawned last year’s smash animated movie is really nothing more than an extended promotional reel for the Danish company that built its reputation—and financial success—on the little interlocking plastic blocks, but despite being a mite padded, it’s a mostly sprightly tour through the byways of Legoland.

Narrated by Jason Bateman, who “appears” in the form of a cheeky Lego lad, the picture takes a somewhat scattershot approach to its subject, demonstrated by what’s perhaps the screenplay’s most repeated line: “But more about that later.” Still, there are a number of clear sections, some presented as integral units but most returned to periodically in snippets.

There’s, first, a history of the company, told in amusing animation but punctuated by interviews with corporate executives and designers. It follows the rise of the firm to enormous success by the 1980s, but also discusses the reasons for its decline to near-bankruptcy at the turn of the century, when a decision to concentrate on sets that were inordinately easy to put together turned off loyal fans without attracting new ones.

That dovetails with what becomes a paramount theme: the company’s enthusiastic willingness to listen to devotees and embrace their ideas, which is shown in the participation of employees in fan conventions and its sponsorship of contests where people can submit designs, some of which will be chosen for production as Lego sets, or submit large-scale constructions that are voted upon to receive “fan choice” awards. The film personalizes all this by interviewing people who submit suggestions or projects.

In fact, one of the best features of the film is its emphasis on individuals—not merely the company designers and executives, but those who attend “brick events” where they can purchase rare parts, compete in contests or simply gawk at the various displays. Participants there happily explain the various acronyms they use to refer to themselves based on age and particular interest. There’s also coverage of the many fan films that have been made for the web using Lego figures, with particular attention given to a couple of guys making a full-length one in their garage using stop-motion technique. Naturally, these efforts are treated with the tongue-in-cheek attitude they deserve.

A more serious matter is the employment of Legos in the treatment of autistic children. Their usefulness in encouraging socializing among kids who usually prefer to keep to themselves reveals an important therapeutic purpose for the little cubes. That segment is eventually related to another about the biggest Lego creation ever made—a huge replica of a “Star Wars” spaceship that was unveiled in Times Square, testimony to the lucrative licensing arrangements that the company has become increasingly dependent on. An episode profiling a sculptor for whom Legos are the medium of choice, however, culminates in a gallery showing that proves that the toy can actually be a means of artistic expression in the wider sense.

“The Lego Movie” was computer generated to look like the result of stop-motion animation. The animation in this documentary is apparently of the older-style sort—just like the cube itself, which may cause viewers of a certain age to think further back to Tinker Toys—though they’re just part of the Hasbro line, while The Lego Group is that rarity, a one-trick pony. Of course, it’s a pony that’s proved to be able to run a very long course—and if one judges from the traffic at stores in the mall, is going stronger than ever.